Teams dealing with less NHL presence at worlds
RIGA, Latvia -- Last year when the World Championship was the only show in town, most of the game's best players were lined up to take part in the annual showcase.
This year with the NHL labor dispute settled and the Stanley Cup playoffs occupying the spotlight, team managers from the top hockey-playing nations have once again been forced to go begging.
Cobbling together national teams at the end of a long grueling NHL campaign has required an expert's sales pitch.
In the past, managers could count on luring a few frontline recruits from teams who failed to qualify for the NHL postseason.
But with many players feeling they have met their international obligations for the year by playing at the Torino Olympics, this World Championship is proving a particularly tough sell.
Most of the teams taking part in the 16-nation tournament (May 5-21) will not be hugely affected by the absence of the NHL players.
The top nations, however, will all be anxious to bolster their gold-medal chances by inserting a few key pieces into their lineups.
If Sweden is to pull off an unprecedented golden double, by adding a world championship to its Torino Olympic title, it will have to do it without, among others, its brilliant netminder Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and veteran stalwart Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Six times since 1972, a world championship and Olympics have been staged in the same year, but no country has ever won both.
The Czech Republic faces no less a challenge as it defends the world title it won last year in Austria without the help of battered Ranger Jaromir Jagr, the NHL's second-leading scorer this season, and Ottawa Senators injured netminder Dominik Hasek.
Just two days before its opening game of tournament on May 5, Canada manager Ken Holland was burning up the phone lines, scrambling to fill eight spots.
"There's been no Olympians who have expressed an interest in going," Holland told the CBC. "They've had a long season with the Olympics jammed in.
"We think we have some good young legs. I think it's going to be more of a younger team. We're trying to find some veteran leadership and hopefully we can find that at the conclusion of the first round [of the NHL playoffs]," he said.
With three Canadian teams (Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary) still in the chase for the Stanley Cup, interest in the World Championship will be lowered but expectations will remain high.
Whether it is a forgettable tournament or a replica of the Olympics, if it involves skates and a puck, hockey-mad Canadians expect their teams to return home with the trophy.
That will be no different in Latvia, where a young Canadian team will be charged with restoring national honor after the country failed to reach the medal round at the Torino Winter Games.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby, who was controversially left off the Canadian Olympic team by Wayne Gretzky, will still get the opportunity to cap off his brilliant rookie campaign with a gold medal.
The youngest player in NHL history to score 100 points, when he tallied 39 goals and 63 assists this season, these worlds will be viewed as the start of Crosby's top-level international apprenticeship.
Hockey Canada is grooming the 18-year-old for an anticipated leadership role when Canada hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"To get the opportunity [to play in the World Championship] is nice," said Crosby, who led Canada to gold at the 2005 World Junior Championship. "It's an honor to represent my country.
"With not being in the playoffs, hopefully it will extend the season a little bit," he said.
The championship could also add another chapter to what is developing into one of the NHL's great rivalries as Crosby, once again, goes toe-to-toe with Washington Capitals rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovechkin, who became just the fourth player in NHL history to score 50 goals in his rookie campaign, is expected to lead an explosive Russian team that will also include hugely talented Evgeni Malkin, widely regarded the best player outside the NHL.
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